IN EACH ISSUE, HARVEY SCHACHTER selects, and edits, an especially pertinent series of contributions from the Inroads listserv. There were many issues that captivated the subscribers to the list this year, among them the response to the tragic events of September 11th. But we turn to another event of particular interest to Canadians, the death of Mordecai Richler, the swashbuckling novelist who also took his turn at political and social criticism of his native Quebec. Was he a great novelist? Was he a great critic? As always, discussion was fiery, but revealing.
The listserv began operating in September 1997, as a means to link readers of the journal and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 150 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.
We present an edited excerpt of the discussion.
THE DEATH OF MORDECAI RICHLER LAST JULY PROMPTED AN OUTPOURING OF stories in the English-Canadian media, looking at his life, his literature and the controversies that swirled around him, notably over his writings on Quebec. Those retrospectives--mostly fawning--led to a more wide-ranging assessment on the Inroads listserv. It began with a detailed analysis by Pierre Joncas.
From: Pierre Joncas
The following are some reflections on press coverage of the death of Mordecai Richler. The key contentions are:
(a) notwithstanding what might have been his merits as a novelist and his virtues as a man, in his polemical writings Mordecai Richler expressed views about French-speaking Quebecers which were at once harsh and unfair;
(b) Richler's death was seized upon by some as an opportunity yet again to assert and to propagate these views; and
(c) this is evidence of the widening chasm between Canada's two main societies.
My reflections end with a call for a more realistic and tolerant approach to Canada's basic dualism.
IT IS UNSEEMLY TO SPEAK ILL OF THE DEAD. Whatever might have been their faults and shortcomings, their irremediable disappearance tears at the hearts of family and friends who should be allowed to mourn without disturbance. If one has no good to say, it is best to say nothing. It is likewise unseemly, in giving praise, to endorse and propagate anew the slanders of the deceased: a case in point is William Johnson's column, "Oh, Mordecai. Oh, Quebec" in The Globe and Mail on July 7. Recalling the official grief which, by contrast, had met the death of poet Gaston Miron, johnson deplores the "silence" of Quebec's prime minister and the "laconic statement" of its minister of cultural affairs. "The difference in treatment for the two sons of Quebec, one honoured by his government for writing anglophobic, anti-Canadian poetry, the other damned by official faint praise," he writes, "confirmed what Mr. Richler had always maintained. Tribalism is rampant in Quebec, especially at the top. Le Quebec alex Quebecois."
Then Johnson--no slouch in chiding others (this time, Lise Bissonnette) for their rants--enters into one of his own about his and Richler's shared outrage over "the abdication of principle, of policy, of vision, of enlightened self-interest that [the failed] Meech Lake [accord] was poised to inject like a virus into our constitution." With the exception of Pierre Trudeau, no one is spared. "We denounced Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Robert Bourassa, the Montreal Gazette, The Globe and Mail. We deplored the blinded defenders of federalism. We despised the Liberal members of the National Assembly--especially the craven English-speaking members." According to Johnson, Richler, "almost alone in Quebec ... grasped the contradiction between liberalism and tribalism. He knew that promoting the distinct society meant unleashing the hounds of intolerance and repression." He goes on to write: "A whole generation had abdicated--except for the Quebec nationalists--and the intellectuals and writers had become appeasers, opportunists, radical chic-nicks, bleeding hearts and simpering minds."
Johnson accurately recalls the outrage provoked among Quebecers, including some English-speakers, by "Inside/Outside," Richler's lengthy article in The New Yorker of September 23, 1991, and the book-length essay Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. He shows not the slightest understanding, however, of the causes of that outrage, much less any sympathy for the hurt brought about by Richler's groundless and insulting accusations, nor indeed any appreciation of the ensuing damage to social peace here in Quebec.
Let me first address some views expressed by Mordecai Richler in his various writings about French-speaking Quebecers, many of whom today think of themselves as Quebecois. (Not so long ago, almost all would have called themselves French-Canadians; Richler's writings have contributed in no small measure to the change in self-identification.) Afterwards, I shall return to Johnson's diatribe masquerading as a lament.
Aside from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz many decades ago, I've read none of Richler's novels so it would be vain of me to agree, or to disagree, with the legion of critics who praise their literary merits. I'm quite prepared to take their word and to leave it at that. The testimonials I've read, in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere, make the man out to have been a doting father, loving husband, loyal friend. Having had no personal acquaintance with Richler, it would be presumptuous of me to question them; had personal experience given me reason to disagree, it would be ill-mannered to do so at this time. What follows, then, deals neither with the novelist nor the man: it focuses on tins writer's views about the Quebecois, views upon which William Johnson has heaped abundant praise. Literary merits and human virtues, however great, are irrelevant to the issue at hand.
"AS CANADA TEETERS ON THE VERGE OF fracturing ... I wonder why, instead of constantly picking at the scabs of their differences [our two founding races] couldn't learn to celebrate what binds them together." So wrote Mordecai Richler in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! One often wondered why he didn't heed his own advice. "Fighting Words," in the New York Times Book Review on June 1, 1997, was but one salvo in his 24 year-long war to stereotype and discredit the Quebecois. The campaign was launched in The Atlantic Monthly of December 1977 with "Oh! Canada! Lament for a Divided Country." Sporadic in the following years, his offensive went into full swing with "Inside/Outside." Later, in addition to the publication of his book, articles by Richler appeared in The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, the Montreal Gazette, Saturday Night, and elsewhere. As well, his views were widely broadcast in interviews and talks over American, British, and Canadian television and radio.
In the otherwise copiously footnoted Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, the writer casually dropped the observation--with no supporting reference, as if it were established fact-that the filles du roi were "hookers, imported to New France ... to satisfy the appetites of ... mostly functionally illiterate soldiers." These were 800 or so young women, mainly orphans but also daughters of families who had fallen on hard times, sent between 1663 and 1673 from Paris and Rouen chiefly, with a small dowry from the royal treasury to marry French soldiers already settled along the shores of the Saint Lawrence. According to Richler, some "pure wool" or "oldstock" Quebecois were "in fact the[ir] progeny." Given the mathematics of genealogy, most Quebecois, however blended their wool or diluted their stock, can count on finding at least one of these poor women in their...